Spiced pumpkin muffins

The autumn clearing began this week, the slow removal of stems, supports and seed heads in time for the plot’s winter sleep. Amongst the debris piled onto the ‘compost’ (read, rubbish) heap, are, sadly, the leeks, which once again have all succumbed to some kind of fungal disease. Their stems look good enough at a distance, but look closely and they are mottled with orange, and what should be firm flesh has been rendered limp and slimy. Next year I must remember this and stop myself from planting more seeds, for every year the result is the same.

Slimy leeks end their days on the ‘compost’ heap

Removal of tired sunflowers and beans feels right in October, an appropriate task marking the end of summer. What astounds me, however, is the longevity of the cosmos. It’s not a question of hanging in there, more that they are thriving in this autumnal weather. Cosmos ‘dazzler’ has given handfuls of hot pink stems for several weeks but now it is littered with buds, a final hurrah before the frosts set in. Amongst them is a newly flowering mystery cosmos, a pink so pale that it’s almost blue. They sit amongst the chrysanthemum and strawflower, fully at home in what now shall be known as the autumn cut-flower bed.

The cosmos have (finally) exploded into colour
The mystery cosmos – not veloutte, not dazzler, not pied piper, not purity, so what is it?

The autumn squashes has been slow this year, with only three tiny little gourds and three larger squash making it to harvest (though the largest turned to rot in the wet weather). I suspect I planted too many too close together, so they were fighting for both space and sunlight. The smaller ones are decorating the house, while the larger specimens are curing in the sun room ready for storage.

Taking home my two autumn squash amongst the cut flowers

Is there a vegetable so wonderfully voluptuous at autumn squash? Orange, green, grey, yellow; round, long, ribbed, fat, turbaned; they are emblematic of all that is joyful about the autumn harvest. A confession though: I much prefer growing squashes to eating them. The odd wedge will make its way onto my dinner plate, and I do enjoy sweet chunks of butternut in a soup or curry, but, for me, the best way to use the soft sweetness of squash in baking. The all-American pumpkin pie is a thing of joy, and just writing the phrase ‘pumpkin spice’ is enough to conjour up a comfortable feeling of seasonal hibernation.

These pumpkin spiced muffins are just the thing for this time of year, when one wants to feel embedded in the season of autumn. Reminiscent of carrot cake, but denser, they have an element of the virtuous about them and therefore work for breakfast as well as afternoon tea. I say ‘pumpkin’ but I would actually use a squash if you can, such as butternut, to avoid wateriness. Alternatively, do as I do, which is to use pre-cooked pumpkin that has been thoroughly drained of all its liquid, either from a tin or home-made. These little cakes are not lookers, but what they lack in appearance they make up for in homely comfort.

Spiced pumpkin muffins
Makes 12

400g fresh squash, or around 200g pre-cooked squash puree that has been thoroughly drained of excess liquid (from a tin or home-made).
1 tsp mixed spice
pinch salt
225g spelt flour (or normal white flour if preferred)
2 heaped tsp baking powder
4 tbsp soft brown sugar
125g unsalted butter
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
4 tbsp plain yoghurt
Handful sultanas
Demerara or white sugar crystals, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 180c and line a 12-hole muffin tin with cases.

If using fresh squash, peel and chop it, then whizz in a food processor until finely chopped and transfer to a mixing bowl. If using pre-cooked squash, drain any excess liquid off then place in a large bowl. Add the spice, salt, flour, baking powder and sugar, then stir gently to combine.

In a separate bowl or jug, melt the butter in the microwave (about 40 seconds). Add the eggs, yoghurt and vanilla, when whisk to combine.

Pour your wet ingredients into the pumpkin mixture, then stir gently but thoroughly until just mixed. Add a handful of sultanas and stir to combine.

Place spoonfuls into each paper case, top with a sprinkle of sugar, and bake until risen and golden – about 20 minutes.

Best eaten fresh but also good for a few days after if re-heated in the oven or microwave.

Spiced pumpkin muffins

Also this week:
Harvesting: Strawflower, chrysanthemum, cosmos, dahlia, cavolo nero, kale, squash.
Also on the allotment and garden: Pulling up sunflowers, bean stalks, summer annuals and ditching the diseased leeks. Sowing sweet peas, ammi, cosmos and laceflower for next year.
Cooking and eating: Beef brisket chilli rich with peppers and coffee (recipe to follow). Butternut and sweet potato curry. Bangers, mash and onion gravy. Sticky toffee pudding.
Reading and visiting: A Suitable Boy, still less than a quarter of a way in after three weeks of effort. Autumn walk in Wyre Forest. Van Gogh experience at Birmingham Hippodrome.

Blackberry (baby) muffins

Plague has visited the household. Harry brought home – simultaneously – a vomiting bug, a chest infection and a general got-no-energy malaise. The vomit, dear God, the vomit! He’s now fine of course, but I am in day 10 of being decidedly below par. It’s also the time of year when the biting insects reach peak-feasting mode and I succumb to wearing jungle formula to bed. I know we should appreciate the warm but frankly, I am now ready for drizzle, anoraks and things-wrapped-in-pastry.

Meanwhile the harvest continues. Beans…so many beans, and courgettes, so many courgettes. And great-looking chard, cavolo nero, perpetual spinach, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and rather less-great-looking knobbly tomatoes. Plus, whilst not armfuls of flowers, enough for a few pretty vases a week. I also am gratefully receiving the fruit of other people’s labour: just look at this whopper of an aubergine!

My Dad has grown a massive aubergine

Getting two or three baskets like this a week

The sweetpeas, sunflowers, cleome, rudbeckia and cosmos are providing several vases a week

What to do with all these beans!

There’s been a good deal of batch cooking this week. Given that I’m still working and am losing about an hour a day to massive coughing fits, I’m not entirely sure how that’s happened, but there it is. Cooking on auto-pilot. I like to keep a good amount of baby food in the freezer, ready to go, to prevent meltdowns at teatime. Fruity muffins are useful and I’ve been using this River Cottage recipe from their Baby and Toddler cookbook which, in truth, taste way too much like health food to me, but Harry likes them. The purple juice stains, so you must either strip your child before they dig in, or else surrender your power to the washing machine. I choose the latter.

Substitute the blackberries with raspberries, redcurrants, blueberries or apples as the mood takes you. Cooked muffins can be frozen. Defrost at room temperature and maybe given them 20 seconds in the microwave before eating to refresh. Grown-ups may prefer these higher-sugar tayberry muffins instead.

Blackberry muffins
From the River Cottage Baby and Toddler Cookbook

125g wholemeal flour
125 plain flour
3 level tsp baking powder
75g caster sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
75g unsalted butter
1 egg
125g plain full-fat yoghurt
125ml whole milk
100-200g blackberries

Preheat the oven to 180c. Sift together the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. In a pyrex jug, melt the butter in the microwave until just melted. Using a fork, whisk the egg, milk and yoghurt into the butter. Add the milky mixture to the dry ingredients and stir to combine (I use a wooden spoon for this). Stir in the blackberries. Dollop the mixture into muffin cases and bake for about 20mins or until golden.

Blackberry baby muffins

Also this week:

Harvesting: last French beans, runner beans, chard, perpetual spinach, cavolo nero, courgette, tomatoes, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cleome, sunflowers, cosmos, rudbeckia, dahlia, sweetpeas. Gratefully receiving beetroots, tomatoes, peppers and aubergine from my folks.

Taking up: bolted lettuce and rocket, lots of annoying thistle weeds

Cooking and eating: Red beans and ham hock, hidden-veg pasta sauce for Harry, Peach cinnamon buns, beetroot salad, mixed veg couscous. A 15% Manzanilla, the first time I’ve enjoyed a sherry since before pregnancy and sign that my liver is improving. Cough mixture.

Reading: The legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark, a brilliant portrait of both a Scottish island (drizzle!) and the secret lives of women

Visiting: Tenbury show. Lots of trips to Coventry for work.

Tayberry brown sugar muffins

It’s summer berry glut time. In the past week, I’ve made raspberry kuchen (it’s like foccacia but sweet), gooseberry crumble, redcurrant pudding…and the freezer is starting to be filled. Note – it isn’t yet empty of last year’s haul.

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The redcurrant haul

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Raspberry kuchen prior to cooking. It’s a great bake for brunch.

The bushes are still dripping with blackcurrants but I’m reluctant to pick in this wet weather as they go mouldy in an instant. And in the meantime, we’re being given bags of beautiful fruit. These cherries came from a Tamworth tree at the weekend.

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Still life cherries and nectarines

Which is how I came across these tayberries, from Matt’s parent’s allotment. I have never cooked or even seen a tayberry before! It’s essentially a big raspberry, but slightly more dense with an elongated tip. The best thing for fruit, I think, is to keep it simple. Tayberry muffin anyone?

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Tayberry brown sugar muffins

Of course, these cakes works with most summer berries – raspberries, blackberries, blackcurrant. Go easy on the fruit though; not only do these berries have an intense flavour, adding too many changes the texture of your cake. Try these warm for pudding, or cold for afternoon tea. Or breakfast. It’s all good.

Tayberry brown sugar muffins

110g self-raising flour

150g plain flour

2tsp baking powder (level)

175g caster sugar

50g light brown sugar

100g butter

225ml milk

2 eggs

large handful of tayberries (or raspberries)

flaked almonds, for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 180c. Line a 12x muffin tin with paper cases.

Put all the dry ingredients into a bowl and combine – get rid of any sugary lumps with your fingers. Melt the butter into the milk, either on the hob or in the microwave. Using a wooden spoon, mix the milk mixture into the dry ingredients to make a smooth and very wet batter – don’t over mix else you’ll have tough muffins. Lightly beat the eggs and add to the batter.

Divide equally between the cases and add three-four tayberries to each muffin. Sprinkle with flaked almonds. Bake for about 20-25 minutes, until risen and golden. Eat!

Apple crumble muffin cake

The search for the perfect curry continues. Jyoti’s has been on the ‘must visit’ list for ages: it’s family-run, Hindu and completely vegetarian.

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Jyoti’s Vegetarian

After years of research, I think vegetarian Indian food is (whisper it) better than meat-based. It tends to be lighter, which makes the flavours sing and the dishes are generally less heavy going. But it’s surprisingly hard to find a decent veggie selection in many restaurants, presumably because most are Bangladeshi and vegetarianism isn’t so great a part of the culture there.

Not so at Jyoti’s, where the vegetable and the legume are king. The food tastes like proper home-cooking, is incredibly cheap (£12 for a three course meal) and knocks the socks off pretty much everything else I’ve tried in the city. Love Jyoti’s.

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Chickpea and spinach curry, chapati and yoghurt

I’ve been making experimental muffins this week, getting through some of the fruit that’s been hanging around. Apple crumble muffin cake anyone? It’s a basic muffin mix with chopped Cox apple, spiked with cinnamon and baked with a handful of crumble on the top.

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Apple crumble muffin cake, ready for baking 

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…and after baking. The crumble has merged into the cake, giving a crunchy topping.

I baked two apple crumble mini-loaves and then used leftover batter to make muffins, this time with a dollop of raspberry compote in the middle. A really easy way to get something sweet and fruity in next to no time.

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Raspberry compote muffins, before baking

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And fresh from the oven

The same base mixture could be flavoured with pretty much anything, and will reliably come up with decent muffins or a lovely moist large cake. Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, dried fruit, chocolate chunks…it’s never failed me yet.

Fruity muffins

Basic muffin mixture:

110g self raising flour

150g plain flour

2tsp baking powder

175g caster sugar

50g light brown sugar

110g butter

225ml milk

2 eggs

Preheat oven to 180c and line your tins. This mixture will make either 12 muffins, one 7-inch round cake, one 2lb loaf cake or four mini loaves.

Put all the dry ingredients into a bowl and mix together briefly to combine (get rid of any sugary lumps with your fingers). Melt the butter into the milk (I use the microwave) and when it is hand-hot, add to the dry ingredients. Use a wooden spoon or electric mixer to bring it together into a smooth, quite liquid batter. Beat the eggs with a fork and add to the mix, beating until just combined. Add your chosen fillings at this point. Pour into the waiting muffin cases or tins and bake. Muffins will take about 25 minutes, mini-loaves about 30 minutes, large loaf or round tin up to 1 hour.

For apple crumble muffins: Peel, core and dice two Cox apples, shake over a little cinnamon to flavour. Make a crumble by rubbing 50g butter into 100g plain flour then stir in 50g caster sugar. Stir apple into the basic muffin mix, pour into the cases or tins. Top with a sprinkling of crumble, bake.

For fruity compote muffins: Make a simple compote with raspberries, blueberries, blackcurrants or blackberries by heating a handful of fruit over a medium heat with a spoonful of sugar and drop of water. Cook for five minutes until syrupy, cool. Fill muffin cases half-way with basic muffin mix, top with a spoonful of compote, top with remaining mix. Sprinkle demerara sugar on each muffin, bake.


Go-to chocolate muffins

The Birmingham Mail tweeted this morning that the UK is colder than Siberia. Whilst I don’t know about that, I do know that it’s now sufficiently chilly for the heating to have flipped itself on this morning. Only one thing for it…the furry all-weather boots have come out.

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Nature is giving us a lot of mixed messages at the moment. I think she likes to play with our nerves. Look one way and it’s still summer, look another and there are all the signs of autumn. I’ve closed the greenhouse door for the first time since, when, June? After all their mollycoddling, I’m not letting the tomatoes get a chill and fail at the final hurdle.

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Some say SUMMER!

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Others say AUTUMN!

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But these say…cosy.

The chard and spinach I put in last week have already germinated, a row of tiny green spots under the fleece.

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Spinach seedlings

It seems that I am the only gardener in the whole place who is incapable of growing a marrow. Truly, I am trying. The courgette we’re growing is Romanesco, a type I’d read about in various cooking journals, most enthusiastically in Joan Gussow’s extraordinary book This Organic Life.

I first came across Gussow in Manhatten Food magazine. She’s a lecturer at Columbia University (well into her 80s I should add) who pretty much pioneered the organic food scene in the US. I don’t mean the fluffy-lifestyle cashmere-and-champagne-and-flicky-hair organics, I mean the proper academic debate that challenges the widespread use of petrochemicals in agribusiness. Gussow is one of my food heroes.

In her book she raves about Romanesco as being a no-fail courgette and she’s right, we’ve had some pretty good courgettes. But they don’t grow into marrows, not proper ones. I have left one on purposefully to try it out and it’s now long as an arm but refuses to get fat. Looks like the classic Mum-food dish of stuffed marrow might have to be put on the back-burner.

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Romanesco ‘marrow’

We’ve been picking raspberries since June, with no end in sight. Raspberries need sponge and cream (to my mind) and so I whipped up a batch of my go-to chocolate muffins. I’ve been using this recipe since the mid 1990s, taken from an Aussie Women’s Weekly cookbook found in Upton Upon Severn library. I then wrote it into a notebook I took to university (1998) and still use it now.

These are good muffins. MAKE THESE MUFFINS.

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My 1998 cooking notebook

Chocolate Muffins

(It’s an old recipes so it’s in ounces. Just go with it)

4oz self raising flour

3oz plain flour

2oz cocoa

2tsp baking powder

8oz caster sugar

4oz butter

8floz milk

2 eggs

Pre-heat oven to 180 celsius.

Melt the butter in a measuring jug, then stir the milk in. If your milk is cold the butter may solidify a bit, but no matter.

In a large bowl, sift together the flours, cocoa, baking powder and sugar.

Stir in the milky butter (I just use a wooden spoon) and then beat in eggs one at a time. It will be a sloppy mixture.

Spoon into muffin cases and bake for about 20 minutes, or until done.

This also works really well as a large cake but you’ll need to up the baking time – about 45 minutes for an 8inch round cake.

Serve with raspberries, cream, ice-cream…

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A tray of joy